The world at large discovered Maren Morris when her breakout single ‘My Church’ was released earlier this year, the start of a meteoric rise to chart success, massive festival crowds and an offer to open for Keith Urban on his ripCORD tour. But most people would be surprised to learn that the singer/songwriter’s career is already longer than John Lennon’s was when the Beatles broke up.
Despite a series of independent releases prior to her relocating from Texas to Nashville, the now 26 year old still feels like a new artist.
“I definitely feel like a veteran in a sense that I have been performing for a very long time - sixteen years professionally. But at the same time, I’ve gone through so many phases of my career and this one has come at such an amazing time in my life. I still feel like I’m starting out in a lot of ways”.
Morris’s transition from child performer to adult artist has been more Jodie Foster than Lindsay Lohan. She’s neither naïve or cynical about music, taking her craft seriously and finding her artistic identity as an adult. Freed from any sense of ‘novelty’ value she might have had as a younger artist, the buzz she’s generating is purely down to her skill as a songwriter and performer, and the quality of the songs on her new album ‘Hero’.
“I’m not a kid anymore, there’s no novelty of being a teenager with a guitar. I feel like moving to Nashville just to be a songwriter really helped with my confidence and also helped me gain some self respect, knowing that I can write music first, and then go play it. I guess there’s just an integrity that comes with writing your own songs - and I’m not knocking anyone that doesn’t write their own music. Rock your own roll. I just think I really found my voice in those writing rooms in Nashville. I really learned what I want to say and how I want to say it and that’s really how my album came to fruition.”
Nashville is famously a town that takes songwriting seriously as a profession for grown ups. To survive and flourish in that environment, writing songs becomes about balancing inspiration with hard work and finely honed skill.
“I try to write from a point where it’s honest and truthful, but as a working songwriter you try to figure out a formula in making something stick out.”
While avoiding any ‘retro’ trappings, there’s an organic, earthy quality to the album that harkens back to Morris’s “love of all things old”, particularly 60s soul and 70s country (the cover design would look right at home on an LP sleeve next an Aretha Franklin or Tammy Wynette album).
The balance between the classic instrumental sounds and contemporary melodic and vocal flourishes (there’s an ear-wormy percussive element to some of Morris’s vocals that is more Rihanna than Loretta) gives the album a timeless feel. That the album was produced busbee, who’s work with Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum and Adam Lambert would suggest a more aggressively contemporary production style, shows that Maren Morris is clearly the one setting her own sonic course and defining her sound.
“My co-producer and co-writer busbee is really great in the studio because he really challenges me as a vocalist. Even on ‘My Church’, he’s having me sing notes higher than I’ve ever hit before and ever thought could be possible.”
‘My Church’ is already a top ten hit in the US (and a six week #1 here), with ‘80s Mercedes’ about to start its climb up the charts, but Morris hopes that people who pick up the album also spend some time with some songs a little deeper down the track listing, to a song that might be her ultimate combination to date of razor sharp emotional self-knowledge and compelling hooky song-craft.
“The last song on the record is called ‘Once’. It’s a very powerful and emotional ballad and it was one of the last songs I wrote for the record. It’s just a really deep, cutting lyric, because it’s very autobiographical for me. I was going through a very painful breakup at the time.
With ‘Once’ I almost transcend my own self, because it’s just such an emotional song. I wouldn’t say I’m screaming, but it’s definitely an emotional vocal because I was very emotional when I sang it. Just the way that we wrote the music, it’s very soaring.
Getting that to translate live, after doing it in a very close quartered studio, has been a real challenge. I feel like it has to be at the right moment in the set. It can’t just be randomly placed. It’s a mindset I have to get into to sing that song. So I am very particular about when that song comes into play. I definitely have to work myself up to sing it, because it’s such a shift from a song like ‘Drunk Girls Don’t Cry’, which is just a fun jam. ‘Once’ still remains one of my favorite songs on the album, because it’s the most personal on the record.
When we wrote that song, I remember listening to the recording back and thinking ‘If I ever put this record out, I want it to be the last one on the album’. I’m really excited for people to dig into the record and listen to all the way through and get to that one, because it really is a big blend of all my influences. Everything from deep rooted country to Motown and soul. It was just a very emotional song to write.
It wraps up my story so well, the story of this part of my life.”
Somehow we make it alive
And both get out on the other side
Oh, this might be asking a lot
When it’s all said and done, don’t forget that you loved me once